(Photo Credit: United Nations)

How companies can align their materials strategy to the UN Sustainable Development Goals

To celebrate the release of the Textile Exchange 2019 Material Change Index, GreenBiz has partnered with Textile Exchange to publish actionable insights for apparel and textile companies looking to source raw materials more sustainably. This article in the series focuses on the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

The way we produce, (re)use and dispose of or recycle our materials has an impact on nearly every one of the Sustainable Development Goals, a collection of 17 global 2030 goals that were introduced by the United Nations in 2015. Also known as the SDGs or the Global Goals, the goals were designed to be universal (for both developed and developing countries), holistic (people-centered and planet-sensitive) and measurable. They include 169 targets and aim to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all.

For the textile industry, “SDG 12: Responsible Consumption and Production” is a gateway to many of the other SDGs. More sustainable cultivation of cotton, wool, wood and other natural raw materials aligns with the “Zero Hunger” and “Life on Land” goals. Converting to renewable energy and deploying cleaner technologies in the fiber processing stages have a positive effect on the “Clean Water and Sanitation”, “Industries, Innovation and Infrastructure” and “Climate Action” goals. And designing out waste, keeping materials in use longer and regenerating farmland plays an important role in reducing carbon emissions, a major target of the “Climate Action” goal. The textile industry has a powerful opportunity to shift the needle in both producer and consumer contexts.

The Global Goals have been widely adopted by governments, NGOs and businesses. In some cases, companies have a stronger lever to pull than governments do. By aligning their business and sustainability strategies to the Global Goals — or more radically, reshaping their business models — companies are able to position themselves as global leaders, rather than merely business leaders, and reframe their achievements as wins for the world. Not only does business hold the key to long term SDG success but the SDGs will help shape business transformation.

How can companies level up their Global Goals alignment?

Every year, Textile Exchange publishes a Material Change Index that tracks the fashion industry’s progress toward more sustainable materials sourcing, as well as alignment with global efforts like the Sustainable Development Goals and the transition to a circular economy. There are some key activities that top performers in the SDGs category have in common. These should serve as inspiration for companies who are looking to push their alignment to the next level. Textile Exchange will also be sharing a more detailed analysis of findings later in 2020.

Embed into business

To ensure long-term benefits for all, companies should integrate the SDGs into business models and strategies. To do this successfully requires getting key stakeholders (including employees, suppliers and investors) on board and on the same page. Through materiality assessment or plain, old-fashioned conversations, the top performers make sure to factor perspectives from across the business into the development of their strategies for positive SDG action.

MATERIAL CHANGE IN ACTION: Gap Inc. aligned its sustainability framework with the UN’s Sustainable Development agenda soon after it was released. The company first identified the issues most material to its business and reviewed how these aligned with the SDGs, finding that its efforts align most closely with the goals on Quality Education, Gender Equality, Clean Water and Sanitation, Decent Work and Economic Growth, Responsible Consumption and Production and Climate Action. Gap Inc. formally incorporated these six SDGs into its sustainability strategy in 2016. By 2018, all of its brands (including Gap, Banana Republic, Old Navy and Athleta) had established executive sustainability steering committees, defined their own priorities and led sustainability strategy workshops with cross-functional teams. “The best advice we could give is to work closely with partners across the company to understand how their work is affected by the Sustainable Development Goals and lay a foundation for working together,” said Diana Rosenberg, Product Sustainability Manager at Gap Inc. “Then, it is critical to set jointly-held company goals and develop internal metrics that we can use to promote progress and hold ourselves accountable.”

(Photo Credit: Gap Inc.)

Leveraging spheres of influence

While each SDG is important, it is likely that some SDGs will resonate more strongly with a company’s business competencies and priorities. Leading companies double-down on their priority SDGs and partner with other organizations to deliver on them. Diversity brings different perspectives to the table, and leading brands see the advantage of partnering within their own supply chain, particularly when tackling complex sustainability challenges in sourcing regions They also keep in mind that the 17 goals are interconnected, and a holistic approach is important to ensure that progress towards certain SDGs has a positive, not detrimental, effect on the others.

Partner for Change

The SDGs are shared goals, so forming collaborations within and between sectors and industries is essential if we are to achieve them. Engaging others with your efforts will raise visibility for the Global Goals and inspire others to take action against them. Companies leading the charge not only partner with others, but also initiate the kinds of working groups, coalitions and platforms that inspire collective engagement and can scale impact.

MATERIAL CHANGE IN ACTION: Sports brand PUMA began efforts to combat the effects of climate change over a decade ago. When it was approached by UN Climate to engage in an initiative for the fashion industry, they naturally chose to get involved. PUMA has since worked with multiple stakeholders to develop the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action, a framework that helps brands jointly address the climate challenge by preparing and executing their sustainability strategies in line with other players. “Industry collaborations are catalysts for systemic change,” said Stefan Seidel, PUMA’s Head of Corporate Sustainability. “When we talk about sustainability, brands often have similar goals but to a certain extent, limited resources and limited reach in shared supply chains. Sharing commitments and resources, brands have more chances to make a positive impact. We are only a small company compared to the size of the overall industry, that is why we know how important it is to work together on sustainability.”

Liesl Truscott is the Director of European & Materials Strategy at Textile Exchange, a global non-profit that works to drive industry transformation in preferred fibers, integrity and standards and responsible supply networks. In this role, she oversees Textile Exchange’s Material Change Index (MCI) and Corporate Fiber & Materials Benchmark (CFMB) program. By benchmarking the industry and providing actionable tools for improvement, Textile Exchange is pushing a race to the top. View the results of the 2019 Material Change Index and learn how you can participate here